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Cutting It Close

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One thing that was almost universally true about SHIELD was that they were very thorough in their planning. It was particularly true when Coulson was heading something up. But all the planning in the world could not account for every possible situation that could come up. And it couldn't always prevent things from getting problematic quickly. It was something they all knew, although liking that fact was a different story entirely.

There were worse places to be than a barren snow-covered plain nowhere near anything approaching civilization, but not many.

There were even fewer places it was worse to be with absolutely nothing in the way of functional electronics and very little in the way of supplies.

"Information gathering, it was supposed to be. Abandoned base. Quick in and out, they said. Home before the sun even comes up. I just can't decide exactly which part of that is the funniest bit."

"None of it's funny at the moment, Barton."

"No kidding. What was your first clue? I've never seen an op go pear-shaped that quickly."

Even that was being almost excessively generous about the situation. What had, to all appearances, been an abandoned HYDRA base, mentioned in the effects of a now-dead arms dealer they'd planned to go into business with, simple enough for a two man reconnaissance team, was possibly one of the most thorough examples of a booby trap that anyone had seen from them in quite some time. Upon approach, they had intercepted a beacon going out, probably due to their proximity. And then a massive EMP had taken away both their transport and communication. So they were left with hours before anyone would miss them and probably less time before the place was swarming with hostiles. They did the only thing they could. They got away as quickly as possible. And they'd made it a remarkably good distance in very little time.

Coulson didn't even respond to Clint's not-exactly-whining-but-whining-anyway. "We're going to need to find cover and take stock of the situation."

"It's not exactly as if there's much in the way of trees around or anything."

"I didn't say trees, I said cover. Night's falling fast, and if we don't have something approaching shelter, you could get hypothermic."

Clint grinned. "We could huddle together for body heat?"

Coulson just looked at him. "Except for the fact that I don't actually have any myself. I wouldn't provide any help to you."

"We can at least pretend?"

"Not a great idea. Better to get a fire started or something."

"Buzzkill."

"We're in a survival situation, Barton. I wasn't aware that there was a buzz to kill."

"Good point. But my point stands." Clint scanned the horizon, looking for anything they could use for cover. He pointed off to the northeast after a bit. "Looks like there's a little stone bluff thing over that way. With some scrub and everything. Might do the trick."

"And that's why they call you Hawkeye. Let's get going."

The walk to the bluff was fairly straightforward. They were both on high alert, but there was nothing that interrupted the walk. It was just them and the landscape and the wind and the cold. Even any animals were well concealed, if they were even around.

It was about everything they could have asked for, as far as shelter. There was even a bit of an overhang on the leeward side. They cleared a spot and sat down.

"All right," Coulson said. "Let's take stock of what supplies we have."

Clint nodded in reply. "Weapons, obviously. Your gun, my bow. We're both at, what, half ammo?"

Checking the magazine of his sidearm, Coulson nodded back. "Yeah. What do you have left as far as your bag of tricks?"

"Didn't bring too much in the way of tricks. Mostly just standard arrowheads. One incendiary, though. That should come in handy. Saves us from having to rub two sticks together to start a fire."

"That should help, yes. There's enough snow around that you won't be hurting for water, and then you have the standard emergency rations, right?"

"Yep."

"Good. We don't know how long we're going to be out here, so stretch it out. You can last longer without food than water, as you well know. You can have mine too, if it comes to that. Doesn't do me much good, after all. But it stays on reserve for now. We're lucky we're dressed for the climate, at least."

Clint frowned, furrowing his brow just a bit. "Coulson? I have emergency rations, great. What about you?"

Phil stood up. "I'll be fine. Clear out a campsite as best you can. Keep it small. I'll grab kindling. We should get a fire up before the sun's entirely down." He walked off to start collecting some of the drier pieces of brush.

~~

The fire was warm, they had a decent stockpile of kindling, and no other living being had shown up. On the bright side, that meant nobody had tried to kill them, but on the less bright one, that also means that no rescue parties-- and SHIELD had to be sending them-- had found them yet. Which was unfortunate, as half of a protein bar didn't really make for the best dinner. But it wasn't him starving that he worried about.

"Barton, you get some sleep. I'll take night watch, for obvious reasons."

"One thing first, Coulson. Don't dodge it this time, it's important."

"What is?"

"How long can you go? I've never really asked this before, it wasn't important. How long can you last without, you know... eating?"

The response was quiet. "As long as I have to."

"Phil, that's not an answer. I know it can't be indefinite."

"I..." He paused. "I can go a few days between feedings before it starts to really have an adverse effect. A bit longer than that before I'm completely unresponsive."

"And how long has it been?"

When he got no immediate response, he just asked the question again.

"Let's just say this was supposed to be a short mission. I'm sure the director is looking for us very assiduously."

"If worse comes to worst, you know--"

"No." Phil shook his head almost vehemently. "Absolutely not. Get some rest, and you can have watch in the morning."

"If they don't find us in time--"

"If they don't find us in time, I'll deal with it. In the meantime, there isn't much point getting up in arms about it. For the record, though, keep an eye out. Any sort of warm-blooded animal can do in a pinch to tide me over. Even though it isn't optimal."

"You do realize we haven't seen another one of those at this point, right?"

"Doesn't mean one won't come along. Keep an eye out."

"And if--"

"I'll deal with it. Please get some rest, Clint."

"Fine." Clint hunkered down against the rock and closed his eyes. The crackling of the fire eventually managed to overcome his concern about Coulson and lulled him to sleep.

~~

When he woke up, it was already well into daylight. Phil was crouched by the fire, tending to it. He sat up and stretched, blinking. "Weren't you supposed to wake me up for day watch, or something?"

"The extra rest wasn't hurting you," Coulson commented quietly. "And I wasn't going anywhere."

"How are you holding up?"

"I'm fine." Clint could tell almost immediately that it was a lie, though. Coulson looked drawn, almost. Like there was less material used to make him but it still had to be spread out to cover the same space. He looked older. It was unsettling.

He wasn't going to let it slide. "You're not fine. And keeping the truth from me isn't going to help either of us, okay? Dammit, Coulson, we're in this together, and if I don't know what we're dealing with here, it's not good for either of us."

The vampire was silent for a long moment, almost to the point where Clint thought he'd have to speak up again. But then he talked, not looking at Clint even once. "I should have prepared for the possibility of this, and I didn't. It was slim odds, but the timing was too close. I'm sure they're exploring the chance that we got captured first, because it would be more dire. That adds time before we get recovered. I was banking on getting back home last night, and it was a dice roll I shouldn't have made."

"So you're not infallible. That's actually weirdly comforting. Practically, though, what does it mean? What are we going to have to deal with, and what can I do to help?"

"How bad do I look?"

"Let's say you're not exactly your normal pretty self."

"Thank you for the specificity. A few days, more than likely, before I become essentially dead weight. I wouldn't worry about that happening, though, if I were you."

Clint narrowed his eyes. "Why?"

"Because at the rate I'm going, I'm pretty sure that tomorrow afternoon will be the last time I'll be able to keep myself from attacking you."

It was so matter-of-fact, like everything Phil said, that it was really more unnerving than... well, most things, really. "Well. Let's hope we get found before that happens."

"I won't let myself do it, Barton. I made an absolute promise to myself. I won't let it get that far. Not when I have the means to stop it before I can't anymore."

"If you're even telling me you have a pint bag in your pocket..."

He shook his head. "It wouldn't work. Dead blood isn't any better than eating a rare steak. Except that the steak tastes better."

"Then what means are you talking about?"

"Sunlight."

Clint was on his feet in an instant. "No. No, absolutely not, Coulson."

Phil still didn't look at him. It was just like old times. "I refuse to see you hurt by my hand. I would refuse to continue on knowing that I'd done so. Same end result for me, Clint, but the one I prefer keeps you alive. And that's been my job since even before... what's happened with us."

He pursed his lips. As far as Clint was concerned, that was an extremely unacceptable solution. But at the moment, there wasn't much use arguing. "Fine. That gives us a bit over a day to get fetched or to find a better solution. But I want you to promise me, right now, that you'll let me know before making that move. Don't just spring it on me; I couldn't handle it."

The look on Coulson's face when he finally glanced over at Clint was a skeptical one, but apparently he saw the truth in what he was saying so he nodded slowly. "Fine. But if I make that call, I've made it, all right?"

Clint just nodded. It was a bridge they hopefully wouldn't have to cross. He almost found himself wishing they would get ambushed by a HYDRA scout. After all, 'expendable' was practically in their goons' job descriptions, right?

If that didn't happen, though... well, like he'd said. There was over a day to come up with a solution. Time was ticking, but a lot could happen in a day.

~~

As night fell, the situation hadn't much changed, aside from Coulson actually more and more looking his age, and that was ever so slightly creepy. Clint looked at him, forehead wrinkling in concern. "How are you holding up?"

"Poorly. I'm normally... much more conscientious about avoiding this kind of state."

"You're conscientious about everything."

"Obviously not always."

"Just goes to show you're human. So to speak."

"So to speak." Coulson sighed. "Go ahead and get some rest. I'll take watch."

"Are you sure you're up to it?"

"I don't have much choice. And you need the easy sleep while you can still get it."

"Unless we get rescued. Or find a better solution. And if we don't get rescued, I'll be sure to find a better solution."

"Barton, we've been over this. I refuse--"

"To bite me, I know. I won't make you." He settled down against the rock in his normal napping spot. "But you also have to know that I'm good at improvising."

Coulson didn't reply. Clint wasn't sure if that was a relief or not.

~~

When Clint woke up this time, Coulson was standing some distance away. The hood of his coat was pulled over his head and he was facing away from the bluff. Clint stood, rolling the cricks out of his neck-- sleeping rough was never exactly fun-- and carefully approached. "Coulson?"

The vampire didn't even look back at him. "You know, Barton, at this rate, I almost think you'd be able to fight me off if it actually came to that. That's almost... comforting."

"So no need for extreme measures, then?"

"It's not that extreme. It's cautious. It's removing a danger."

"It's removing you. That's not acceptable."

"I... I'm afraid I wouldn't be that much of a help should the situation turn more dire anyway, Keeping me around would be a hindrance. And I still can't guarantee I won't be a danger to you."

"Coulson, look at me."

He turned and did so. The further signs of aging didn't startle Clint nearly as much as the fierce, almost desperate look in those eyes. He was caught between the concern of a friend, of a lover, and the flight instinct of a prey animal. The dissonance almost made him shiver. Almost. Coulson didn't appear as if he was going to say anything else, so Clint took up the slack.

"I have an idea. It doesn't involve biting me and it doesn't involve you letting yourself fry to keep me safe."

"You do realize that the remaining options involve either a silver bullet-- or arrow, in your case, I guess-- which I'm pretty sure you don't have, or a stake through the heart? I mean, we have enough kindling for the latter."

"Not exactly what I had in mind. Listen, you might want to be sitting down for this one. Let's head over to the camp where at least there's a backrest."

Coulson glanced up at the sun and just nodded, turning to head back over to the campsite. Clint followed in his wake, hoping that what he had in mind would work. Coulson sat straightaway, leaning back against the rock face. Clint joined him, but not before grabbing his quiver so he could set it beside himself.

"So what's your brilliant idea?"

Clint promptly pulled an arrow out of his quiver. "Before you ask, no, it's not a silver arrowhead. And I don't know if it would count as a stake, but even if it did, I wouldn't use it as one."

"I more or less completely fail to see where you're going with this."

"Well, you will." With that, Clint flipped the arrow around in his hand and dug the arrowhead into the palm of his left hand, dragging a gash along a diagonal. He hissed a bit at the pain but otherwise let it go. The blood started to flow readily. Coulson was just staring at his hand, almost transfixed. "It's yours, Phil, if you'll take it. If not, it's just being wasted."

"I... don't know..."

Clint just lifted his hand towards the vampire. "Give it a try. Just watch the teeth?"

Coulson was suddenly gripping at Clint's wrist almost like it was a lifeline. His gaze still hadn't left the trickling blood. "You're sure about this?"

"I'm pretty sure that I wouldn't have stuck an arrow into my skin if I weren't completely sure about this. You probably won't get as much as you need, but it might be enough to keep you safely undead."

And with that, Coulson's lips were pressed up against his hand, almost as gently as a feathery kiss at first. The careful suction and lapping of the vampire's tongue against his skin almost tickled, in a weird way. It was all Clint could do not to laugh. More heartening, though, he didn't actually stop immediately, which meant that it must have been having some sort of beneficial effect.

They just sat there like that for a while, leaning up against a stone bluff, Coulson latched onto Clint's hand like his life depended on it-- which, really, it did.

It was some minutes later before Coulson pulled away. Clint was on the verge of lightheadedness, but it was nothing that he couldn't have gotten from a more standard blood donation, so he counted it as a win. Although it wasn't quite as much of one as the fact that Coulson looked at least a bit less completely listless and mummified. "Nice to see you losing the Yzma look."

Coulson furrowed his brow, reaching in his pocket for the miniature first aid kit he always kept on hand. "What?"

"Don't tell me you've never... oh, never mind," Clint replied, shaking his head as Coulson started to bandage his hand. "How are you feeling?"

"I'm... better. You didn't have to do that, you know."

Clint just shrugged. "You would have done the same for me. Hell, you would have done worse for me." He nodded his head up towards the sun as proof.

"I suppose. Why your hand, though? Not much help to an archer."

"It'll heal. I figured you'd think my neck was a bit on the nose, and I didn't want to nick anything dangerous there on accident. I was also considering my inner elbow like an actual blood donation, but then I figured that the positioning it would take for you to actually eat from my elbow would be really awkward. Besides, I'd have to take off my coat, and in case you haven't noticed, it's kind of cold out here."

"Just a bit. Thank you."

"Any time. How much time would you say that bought you before I'll have to do it again?"

"Clint, we can't keep doing this indefinitely. There's a reason they have time limits on standard blood donation, too."

"How long?"

"Day, maybe two."

"Well, that's another day or two for them to find us. And if it gets too much, then we'll just cross that bridge when we get there. But hey, pretty sure SHIELD's not going to leave you alone out here any longer than it takes to find us."

"I think leaving you out here is a bit more of a mark on their priority list. But I'll concede the point. I still can't wait to get back."

"Me neither. Trust me."

As it turned out, they only had to repeat the experiment once. The recovery team showed up three days later. When they set foot on the Helicarrier again, Agent Hill was waiting to debrief them. She took one look at Coulson's condition and looked anything but impressed. That expression didn't change much when she promptly gave Clint the once-over, but he totally spied a thread of surprise there. So Maria Hill of all people knew. And had expected Clint to have his throat ripped out. He was almost insulted on Coulson's behalf.

In fact, he was about to say something, right there and then, when Coulson's hand gently fell on his wrist, stopping him short. "Not worth it, Barton."

"You're always worth it, sir."

Coulson smiled, just a bit, and let go of his wrist. "Get moving. We have work to do."

Giving a lazy salute with his non-bandaged hand, Clint headed off to do just that. He couldn't wait to actually get a real meal. And he had a feeling he wasn't the only one.